Provocative, Angry Twitter Rants = More Attention/Followers?

“If bad behavior or provocative and angry and ranting tweets lead to more attention,” says Deb Roy (2018), director of MIT’s Lab for Social Machines who continues, “well, you’ve just incentivized that behavior on the platform” emphasises Roy in an article for Time magazine by Katy Steinmetz (2018).

Buttons placed prominently – attracting viewers to like, retweet or reply – might be creating counter-productive incentives. Since one feels disappointed, or even bad, if the engagement numbers are low. But, when those numbers go up, users get ‘boosts of pleasure’.

Two PR Smith twitter situation - many followers= happy and few followers = sad

Followers numbers fall = depression?


“This Is How Rats Work. Press A Lever, Get A Pellet”

Suggests Jay Van Bavel, an associate professor of psychology at New York University who says, “The human brain is structured the same way.” Van Bavel is referring to Professor Skinner’s experiments with rats in the 1940s when he explored how behaviour (& learning/remembering) can be conditioned with rewards/incentives (in the rat’s case, pellets of food).  Today, angry tweeters get rewarded with more followers.

Man shouting

Outrage outperforms moderate

Moral Outrage Tweets tend to Outperform Moderate Tweets
The problem is that ‘mindless outrage’ type of tweets tend to perform better (& therefore reward their authors) more than rational, considered tweets. One report suggests that provocative angry and ranting tweets outperform other tweets by approximately 20% (Van Bavel 2018).


Moral outrage is more likely to get more retweets

Van Bavel has found that tweets containing strong moral and emotional language, those with “moral outrage,” are about 20 percent more likely to get retweeted.

Angry Man



Moral Outrage Generates Bigger Number of Followers = Trumpism?

‘Politicians on the ideological extremes — be they Democratic or Republican — tend to have bigger followings than their moderate counterparts.’ (Steinmetz 2018).  “Taking strong, polarizing stances, that’s what gets rewarded,” Van Bavel says, describing President Donald Trump as “off the charts” regarding polarizing messages.


Moral Outrage Generates Bigger Number of Followers?

So Who’s At Fault:  Twitter’s Algorithms Or Us Humans?

‘Algorithms that select popular content may be prioritizing and spreading the very types of posts that make people the most angry’, says Yale psychologist Molly Crockett (2018), who also suggests that therefore the social usefulness of outrage itself, may be depleted in the process.

twitter logo

So Who’s At Fault: Twitter Algorithms Or Us Humans?

A Culture of Mindless Outrage = Vulnerability to Manipulation

So it looks like provocative, angry and morally outraged tweets are contributing to a culture of mindless outrage. This, in turn, may make the heaving masses of people more susceptible to manipulation. Shades of 1930s Germany?

Kanye West (with his 28m followers) Agrees

Although the popular American singer, Kanye West, has 28m twitter followers, he agrees.  “[W]e should be able to participate in social media without having to show how many followers or likes we have,” he tweeted. “This has an intense negative impact on our self- worth.” This is the disappointed feeling we mentioned if ‘suffering’ low engagement levels. But when the engagement goes up users get ‘boosts of pleasure’.   

Kanye West twitter account

Kanye West objects to twitter accounts showing number of followers  (28.4m in his case)


This Threatens Twitter’s Own Survival

Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey, testified during a House Committee on Energy and Commerce hearing about Twitter’s transparency and accountability (5 Sep 2018). He confirmed that he is willing to rethink not just twitter policies but the fundamental design of the twitter platform itself as part of twitter’s effort to beat: hate speech, fake news, trolls & disinformation – the curse of social media.

Angry follower

Twitter must now beat hate speech, fake news, trolls & disinformation – the curse of social media.


In The Long Run, Helping Customers Must Come First

Twitter CEO, Dorsey, confirmed that the need to improve the health of public conversation is a “long-term growth factor” for Twitter. And that this is more important than short-term twitter numbers going up or down, since “no one is going to use it (twitter) in the first place.”

 twitter logo

In The Long Run, Helping Customers Must Come First

The Big Social Media Dream – still lives on…..

The big dream, MIT’s Deb Roy suggests, is “to build a leaderboard for having a positive effect on the public discourse.” A Utopian dream or can social media help to reduce the growing numbers suffering with anxiety and depression – partly induced, some say, by social media’s very visible approval ratings. Perhaps this negative can be turned into a positive?

What do you think?

Source: Steinmetz, K. (2018) ‘This Is How Rats Work.’ Why Twitter’s Emphasis on Follower Counts Could Be Backfiring, Time Magazine 19 Sep.

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